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What They’re Thinking: Iowa Ag Secretary talks bird flu and turkey prices ahead of Thanksgiving
Avian influenza again found in Iowa as migratory birds fly south
Iowa agriculture officials last week confirmed two more cases of bird flu have been detected in Iowa: in a commercial flock in Wright County and a backyard flock in Louisa County. That makes four confirmed cases of the virus in Iowa flocks this fall, after 19 cases were confirmed during the spring period, from March through May.
Bird flu has reemerged as wild birds begin their fall migration south, and has put Iowa chicken and turkey farmers on alert for a second round of the deadly, highly transmissible bird flu, which destroyed 13 million Iowa birds last spring as a precaution to keep the disease from spreading.
The most recent cases of the highly transmissible avian influenza confirmed in Iowa infected a flock of about 1.1 million egg-laying chickens in Wright County about a week after being detected in a flock of 1 million egg-laying chickens, also in Wright County.
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig recently spoke with The Gazette about the status and impact of bird flu on Iowa’s poultry industry and how it could effect turkey prices heading into Thanksgiving.
Q: Can you give us an update and a status as to where we stand with bird flu in the state and how it's impacted the state’s poultry industry?
A: “It’s certainly unfortunate that we’re seeing a return. The last time we had (cases of bird flu) in the state of Iowa was 2015, and we really just dealt with it in the spring of the year on the northern migration of birds, and we did not see that return (that) fall.
“Unfortunately, we’ve watched states to our north and around us that have been dealing with it. And, unfortunately, it’s not unexpected that we’ve seen it returning to Iowa as those birds are once again coming south.”
Q: What are some of the challenges and concerns facing Iowa’s poultry industry right now as it pertains to bird flu? What are some of the steps and precautions they’re taking, or should be taking, and what’s the state doing?
A: “We learned a lot of lessons coming out of 2015. We had 77 (infected sites) and significant amount of spread from farm to farm. And this year in the state of Iowa, and other states as well, we’re not seeing the kind of movement between sites. But these have all been independent, wild bird introductions. So there’s a couple of things to take note of there. One is that our producer community has had a significant improvement in the biosecurities that they’re implementing on their farms, because they’re keeping things from moving between locations and that’s good news. That was a major lesson learned.
“On the response side … the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and USDA, certainly, as partners in the response, learned a lot too about how can we have faster detection? How can we move quickly to contain and to stamp out the virus on those sites? And I’d say it’s really those two things that have contributed to a significantly different experience in the state of Iowa this year versus 2015.”
Q: Should average Iowans be concerned? What should they bear in mind as they see these news reports?
A: “From a food-safety standpoint, there is no concern because these animals are not making into the food supply.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the recent highly pathogenic bird flu cases in Iowa do not present a public health concern and that it remains safe to eat poultry products.
“But, from a consumer’s perspective, you have to look at this through the lens of food prices rising at a level we haven’t seen since the late ‘70s,” due to high inflation, elevated energy prices, supply chain disruptions and workforce shortages. “And, then you layer on top of that a potential supply disruption in terms of either turkey or egg production. That can certainly be concerning to consumers and I’m sure that’s on folks minds.”
Fortunately, coming into Thanksgiving, Naig said the supply of turkeys in cold storage “is going to be more than adequate to meet consumer demand for Thanksgiving.”
“However, because of the reduction in production because of high pathogen (avian influenza) and these other inflationary issues, folks can certainly expect to pay more for turkey this year.”
Q: Any idea how much more? What are the numbers you’re seeing, or estimates?
A: “Hard to tell. You’re really talking about a small percent of total U.S. turkey production that’s been impacted. Historically, retailers have used turkeys as a loss leader, and so it may be hard to determine exactly what retailers will do. They’ve either sold them at a loss or at a break-even price. And, certainly, their costs will be higher. So I think it remains to be seen whether retailers will pass that on or not. All indications are that because the wholesale prices is up, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see consumers paying more.”
Iowa’s egg farmers lead the nation in egg production, caring for nearly 55 million laying hens producing almost one out of every six eggs produced in the United States, according to the Iowa Egg Council.
“Again, I’m not hearing of supply issues, but the cost of production and the reduction of production because of high-path is real and has impacted and has driven prices up. But, I think it’s hard to tease those things out and specifically associate this price increase with that, because frankly these things are converging all at the same time,” he said of higher feed, labor and energy costs.
Q: Any idea what the outlook is going forward and what we might continue to see as it relates to the presence or spread of bird flu in Iowa?
A: Naig said migration is expected to continue for several more weeks. He encouraged commercial and backyard bird owners to prevent contact between their birds and wild birds.
"Again, we’ve seen a dramatic improvement there, but now is the time to really step up and be extra vigilant, because clearly we know the virus is back in our geography so there is an elevated threat.“
Q: Is this something we should expect more of in terms of high pathogen avian influenza?
A: “I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t know that anybody really does, because, again, the last time we dealt with this was in 2015. This is something that happens from time to time, and I think it’s very hard to predict.”
That said, Naig said state and federal agriculture officials need to remain vigilant and advocated for advance monitoring of “other flyways around the world" to serve as early-warning system.
“If we can see something that’s moving across Asia and can then have some expectation that … those are the types of things that we ought to be looking at. But, I think it’s very, very difficult to try to make a prediction and say, ‘Yes, we’re going to be dealing with high-path with more frequency than we have.’"
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